I was in the Loop on April 13, the day downtown wet its pants. As I turned a corner near City Hall, I saw that the half-block plaza on Randolph in front of–or is it in back of?–Daley Center had been commandeered for the use of official vehicles. There, beneath the cockeyed gaze of the Picasso, sat police cars and Streets & San cars and Metropolitan Whatever They Now Call the Sewer District cars, all in neat rows roped off with fluttering blue plastic pennants.
I tried to imagine how those guys must have felt when they turned their wheels onto those sacrosanct slabs. It must have been like sitting in the boss’s chair–a delicious sip from the cup of privilege.
What surprised me however was how inoffensive that sight was, how little sense I got of the violated public space in spite of its having been turned into what looked like a used-car lot. It got me to thinking about that plaza, and downtown public spaces in general.
Which turned out to be a rather complicated subject, so the story is pretty long. So that you may know in advance whether the reward of reading this story will be worth the effort, I provide this summary of what may be found in the pages that follow. I talk about why some people like Daley Plaza and some people don’t. Dan Burnham is mentioned, as are several less famous people who have proposed uses for Block 37, the world-class empty lot across from Field’s. The size of the Roman Forum figures in the analysis, and there is an interesting bit about the obelisk that was brought to Rome’s Piazza del Popolo by Augustus from Heliopolis (13th century BC). I devote several paragraphs to the Picasso–sorry, the world-famous Picasso–without succumbing to the temptation to guess what it is. I probably explain more than I have to about the differences between parks, plazas, and public spaces in general, but these are the obligations of writing for a nondaily newspaper. I think there’s a section about microclimates in cities and the feasibility of a pigeon tax as a source of maintenance money, although I may have cut that stuff out.
There are of course no conclusions about any of these things. This is journalism, not a hockey game, OK?
In 1969, you may remember, everything about the way Americans lived seemed about to change. Harold Mayer and Richard Wade, writing that year in Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, sang a dirge for the street as the locus of city life. They wrote that city dwellers needed “a new context for human contacts amidst the thickening mass of concrete, masonry, glass, and steel.” New plazas like Pioneer Court, between the Tribune Tower and the Equitable Building, were “turning life toward the center of the block” and away from the street.
But in 1969 the urban plaza in Chicago turned out to be one more of the things that didn’t work the way they were supposed to. That hoped-for new context for human contacts merely turned lunch toward the center of the block; even the most welcoming public spaces downtown are heavily used only during part of each day during part of the year by part of the downtown population–mainly 20- to 40-year-old white-collar workers.
Chicago’s uncertain sense of cityhood has long been tied up in the quality of its formal public spaces. Back in 1895 architect Normand Patton complained that Chicago was inferior to every other major city in the U.S. and Europe in its lack of “one or more public squares or parks in the heart of the city around which are grouped the finest specimens of architecture.” In a city that then lacked safe drinking water, squarelessness would seem a modest failing, but it has nagged at Patton’s civic descendants for most of the last century.
Chicago’s early search for a symbolically apt center is recalled by Daniel Bluestone in his fine new book, Constructing Chicago. The block now occupied by the City Hall-County Building was Chicago’s first public square, and the nearby area was the center of both the civic and religious realms in the young city. The city’s first big churches were built close by, creating what Bluestone called “an image of religious primacy”–churches around an open square–“clearly derived from an established tradition of American town form.” But Chicago’s civic buildings were quickly overwhelmed by its soaring new commercial buildings. The trend left the public realm–and thus the order and justice that it then still stood for–symbolically dwarfed, disfigured, demeaned.
Several proposals to build a new civic-cum-cultural complex were advanced around the turn of the century. All incorporated some form of plaza. The grandest was laid out by Daniel Burnham in his 1909 Chicago Plan. Uncle Dan proposed a complex of five public buildings where Halsted Street intersected Congress; the centerpiece was a massive domed City Hall that enlarged upon various cathedral plans. The buildings would be set around a pentagonal plaza that Burnham’s plan claimed would be “what the Acropolis was to Athens, or the Forum to Rome, and what St. Mark’s Square is to Venice–the very embodiment of civic life.”
The public plaza still matters in this way, even if its pretensions have shrunk along with our expectations of civic life. Suburbs and small towns are rushing to create foci of civic identity by fixing up derelict town squares if they have them and building new ones if they don’t. An example is the Olde Schaumburg Centre, which is neither olde nor the centre of Schaumburg life but which supporters hope will suggest that the town is something more than a suburb of Woodfield Mall.
I must interrupt here. A common fault of articles about cities is what could be called–in fact, will here be called–the Presumption of Local Knowledge. Since in topographical terms local knowledge rarely extends past the blocks between where a Chicagoan lives and the nearest el station, we here provide a gazetteer of the sites discussed in this piece:
Civic Center. The building where the city courts are. Faces Randolph, apparently, although like all buildings of that era it doesn’t have a front or a back side. They changed the name a few years after it was built–not, as you might imagine, to the “Civic Building” but to the “Richard J. Daley Center.”
Daley Plaza, also known as the Richard J. Daley Center Plaza, or Daley Center Plaza, was before that the Civic Center Plaza. Bounded by Washington, Dearborn, and Clark streets and what is now known as the Richard J. Daley Center. Across the street from the County Building (which most people call City Hall). Where the Picasso is. The farmer’s market. Bill Clinton rally. The start of the marathon.
Block 37. So designated under the city’s North Loop redevelopment scheme. The empty lot bounded by Randolph, State, Washington, and Dearborn. Across from Field’s real store. Where the tents were in the summer. Where the ice rink is today.
It was to be a half century after the Chicago Plan before Chicago got its Acropolis, in the form of the then Civic Center and its namesake plaza that opened in 1965. No doubt Burnham et al would have found it hard to praise. Little about the space says “public” apart from poor housekeeping; the classical columns arrayed on the County Building’s facade had long since been as common on banks, office buildings, even warehouses as they were on government buildings.
And just as the new plate-glass and steel Civic Center itself took the boxy form of the new generation of commercial (meaning corporate) buildings, its plaza was also derived from commercial rather than civic models. The plaza mirrors the building’s assertive modernism–spare, geometric, subtle. That probably explains why hardly anyone likes it. The present Mayor Daley is known not to care for it. Sara Bode, who while she was director of the Greater State Street Council certainly learned to know one when she sees one, has described Daley Plaza as a “not . . . very attractive place.”
The plaza is indeed sparsely furnished–a low fountain pool, an eternal flame set flush with the pavement, a few trees, and of course the looming Picasso. (Apart from temporary cafe seating or market stalls, the great piazzas of Europe are fairly stark too; permanent infrastructure makes as many uses impossible as it makes possible.) The space accommodates folding chairs for lunch-hour concerts, pickup trucks on farmer’s-market days, unorganized crowds at rallies. People are the essential infrastructure in the great civic plazas, and without them they all feel barren.
Architecture buffs tend to think kindly of Daley Plaza, possibly because it gives us unobstructed views of adjoining buildings. Architect Jack Hartray thinks the plaza is “marvelous.” The late Tribune critic Paul Gapp praised its sense of enclosure. Ira Bach has called it “an exciting visual treat.” M.W. Newman, whose architecture column in Chicago magazine was good enough that the magazine canceled it, there called it a “civic boon.”
As their cities’ public face, the great civic plazas were meant to impress visitors rather than entertain them; if flags flew, it was to remind visitors of the authority of the institutions there represented, not because they made a pretty scene. Architects Sallie Hood and Ron Sakal, who were asked to rethink the space in 1988 for a museum exhibit, found the space to be badly proportioned, too empty and dull, and without shelter, variety, or amenity. Sakal and Hood proposed to convert it into a park via arbors, arcades, and groves of trees (see “The City of Tomorrow” by Harold Henderson, January 27, 1989). It was an appealing concept, but it would not have improved Daley Plaza so much as reinvented it. Gerald Adelmann, executive director of the Openlands Project, calls Daley Plaza “a great civic space. It’s not a very inviting social space, but that’s not what it was designed for.”
We are left with the architect’s version of the chicken-and-egg question: Do people come first? Or people places? Few of the newer plazas built specifically to show off government buildings have been very successful as people spaces. Boston’s City Hall Plaza, locals report, is a splendid public space for concerts and New Year’s Eve parties and fireworks but sits unanimated most of the rest of the time; Albany Mall in New York is said to be even worse.
Earlier versions often work better–not because they have prettier trees or benches that match the wastebaskets, but because their architects endowed them with potential for public theater. The steps of New York’s City Hall open onto City Hall Park, making them a wonderful stage for political rallies. The east entrance to the Illinois statehouse in Springfield works that way too. But by some malicious accident of history Daley Plaza ended up on the wrong side of the City Hall-County Building so that our City Hall opens onto a LaSalle Street sidewalk rather than the plaza. Imagine a fifth-floor balcony from which mayors could emerge periodically to address and bless the populace gathered on the plaza below, a la the pope at Saint Peter’s.
Block 37 is symptom and symbol of the collapse of the 1980s skyscraper boom in Chicago. Bankers and developers tell the story to their children every night at bedtime instead of the Brothers Grimm–about how the city spent $27 million to buy and clear the entire block between Randolph and Washington and State and Dearborn in 1989 to make way for a twin-tower skyscraper complex designed by that nice Mr. Jahn, how City Hall was left with mud on its face when the developers failed to get financing for the project, how the city was forced to put the land to face-saving temporary use by turning it into a playpen for undersocialized teens.
As the short-term real estate slowdown begins to look long-term, people have begun to talk about a more or less permanent conversion of Block 37 to public use. The Openlands Project would have the city build some kind of park there as part of a wider program of open-space projects for the Loop. The Tribune meanwhile has been editorializing for what it calls a “grand central plaza,” a “dynamic public space.”
With the clearing of Block 37, which is between Marshall Field’s and Daley Plaza, Chicago has a chance to add substantially to its inventory of downtown public spaces. But what kind of space should be built on Block 37? How should it relate to the Daley Plaza next door? Have we learned enough about plaza design since 1969–about cities, about people–to get it right this time?
Chicago’s downtown does not suffer from a surplus of pleasant, convenient public spaces. Nonetheless the city persists in its opinion that anything but a building on Block 37 would waste a prime tax-earning site, and the developers say it’s too soon to declare a building project dead. The first objection is reasonable but moot, the second simply unreasonable; it took Chicago 25 years to recover from its last building binge in the 1920s. Says Adelmann, “Nobody would have advocated tearing down these buildings to make open space–well, we might have–but here we have these huge gaping holes in the ground.”
These proposals are not frivolous, although they are flawed. Both Openlands and the Tribune have been vague about what kind of open space they would like to see on Block 37 apart from their evident desire that it not look anything like a skyscraper. To say that the Loop could use more open space is like saying it needs another building. Where? Which kind? How big? Who for?
In articles and interviews Adelmann has envisioned several possibilities for Block 37–“comfortable meeting places for friends,” programmed spaces set aside for musical performances or markets, recreational spaces including a winter garden (“a real winter garden,” he adds, lobbing a stone at 311 South Wacker’s glassed-in lobby) and ice skating in season.
Usually when you add up those kinds of possibilities in the U.S. you get another damn park. Dan Skoda, president of Marshall Field’s, has pointed out in opposing the conversion of Block 37 to a park that there already is a biggish park barely two blocks away. But the sections of Grant Park that offer amenities such as seating and shade and are attractive to the hungry Loop worker, the foot-weary tourist, and the apprentice boulevardier are in fact as many as nine blocks away from State and Randolph–too far, since the distance people are willing to walk to use a downtown park is measured in hundreds of feet rather than hundreds of yards. Grant Park is aptly described as Chicago’s front yard, since it is largely useless and expensive to maintain. It is a regional park and is scaled accordingly. Its northern sections nearest the Loop are laid out in a formal, vaguely Baroque style, but it functions more like a fairground.
A conventional green space is not the only kind of public space possible near State and Washington; indeed, it is not the only kind of park space possible. A competition to find interim uses for Block 37 held in 1991 by the Chicago Athenaeum stimulated all sorts of cunning ideas for the space. The winning submission came from three Chicago architects, Peter Exley, Jane Hansen, and Frank Kavanagh, who dreamed up a sort of deconstructed funfair, with cafes and seating set below street level, reached by stylized fire escapes and drawbridges and traversed by catwalks. Explains Exley, “The premise was that you excavate the space in preparation for whatever building will eventually be built there. In the process you’d expose the archaeology of Chicago and State Street.”
Exley stresses that the point of the whole gizmo was fun, and urban theater was the style–a sort of Museum of Science and Industry for grown-ups. “It was an intellectual and aesthetic experiment,” Exley insists. “We never thought that something like this would actually happen.”
Open space is not necessarily green space, public space is not necessarily civic space, a civic plaza is not a town square, and a park–perversely–may be a little of all of them. The ancestor of the plaza is the continental (mainly Italian) piazza, which is completely different from a park. A well-designed park diffuses energy and offers respite from the day-to-day whirl; a successful plaza focuses energy by concentrating activity. Differences in use are reflected in differences in form: plazas tend to be paved, parks turfed, although both may have trees and ornamental plantings.
All these terms are often used interchangeably, with just enough justification to perpetuate the carelessness. (The traditional town square, for example, worked like a plaza but was landscaped like a park.) Such distinctions may be subtle but they are crucial to good design of public spaces. Try to use a park as if it was a plaza, as the city does by staging Taste of Chicago in Grant Park, and damage must be done either to the event or the space.
The most plentiful type of people space in the Loop is the public plaza’s bastard cousin, the building plaza, whose purpose is architectural. Mies’s IBM Plaza (1971) is a classic example of a plaza designed to be looked at rather than used, space in which a corporation’s monument to itself can be displayed like a Jell-O mold on a plate.
Critic and author Michael Webb, in a 1990 Metropolis magazine piece called “Reinventing the Square,” stated that compared to the European piazza or even the American town square, the building plaza is “a colorful counterfeit, unnaturally clean, carefully censored, and devoid of surprise.” Places like the recently refurbished Equitable plaza, the new Channel Gardens, Mayor Ogden Plaza on Columbus south of Illinois, the plazas at One Financial Place and Riverside Plaza, the redone plazas at Illinois Center–these consist of closely arrayed raised planting beds ringed with benchlike slabs. Handsome enough but cluttered and almost cramped, this is open space only in the sense that there are no buildings in it; their configuration precludes any use save sitting in the shade by small groups.
Traditionally, public buildings have been surrounded by landscaped space. The conspicuous waste of commercially valuable real estate as building grounds, appropriated for symbolic profit, demarked such buildings from their commercial brethren. The earliest Chicago courthouse stood thus isolated in the center of the old square. But as government grew the city was forced to squeeze more and more building onto the same block. Subsequent versions of the courthouse swelled ever closer to the sidewalk, until the present version of the City Hall-County Building, finished in 1911, occupied the entire block like any other office building.
The lakefront museums achieve the traditional horizontal majesty, but it’s been many a decade since public agencies could afford that much real estate in the Loop for public buildings. (The plaza of the federal government complex at Dearborn and Adams–the Chagall plaza–was already owned by the feds, because the old federal building once stood there.) The architects of the new Harold Washington Library originally proposed to open it onto a new public square across the street on Congress, but that proved impossible. Noted critic Philip Bess in Inland Architect suggested that because the architects were unable to amplify the scale of the building, they instead amplified the scale of its exterior elements. In other words, without a setting to call attention to the building in a crowded downtown, the building has to call attention to itself.
Civic plazas embody local civic life and celebrate it. They are perhaps the supreme example of what urbanist Kevin Lynch called nodes, which he described variously as “strategic foci” of citizens’ experience of the city, places of “thematic concentration,” “conceptual anchorpoints in our cities.” Lynch offered as an example of such an anchor point the 45-acre Boston Common which, with an adjoining public garden perhaps half that size, he believes forms the “core image” of Boston.
Michigan Avenue between Balbo and Oak probably forms the core image of the tourists’ Chicago, but there is no one site that sums up the city in all its parts. With the clearing of Block 37 opening up vistas all the way to State Street, Daley Plaza has as much potential as a conceptual anchor point as any. The space now is overlooked by two of the best examples of both the Chicago school (the Reliance Building) and the Miesian era of skyscraper design (Daley Center), it is fronted on the west by the fabled seat of Chicago’s politics and on the east by its greatest department store.
The problem is not symbolic aptness but shape and scale. The demolition of Block 37 removed the original east “wall” of the present plaza and further distorted the shape of the space. (Its east wall is now the facade of Marshall Field’s–approximately 925 feet from the other side.) A plan for Block 37 would have to either restore that violated sense of closure or, by uniting the two spaces into a single larger one, render closure moot. Architect Exley explains how he and his colleagues sought to re-create Daley Plaza’s four-sided space; they could not match the scale of the office buildings that had been there, and so substituted a scaffoldlike structure that stood some 50 feet above the sidewalk, roughly the same height as the Com Ed substation that still stands on the Dearborn Street side of the site.
While it would be fairly easy to tie Daley Plaza and Block 37 together visually–a phalanx of trees would be the perhaps too obvious solution–it will be much trickier to unite the two spaces physically. That would require either closing Dearborn Street between Randolph and Washington or somehow surmounting it. (Sinking the street would require impossibly expensive utility relocations.)
Over in Cityfront Center, which flanks Columbus Drive just north of the river, the twin towers of the Cityfront Place apartment complex are separated by a plaza that rises some 40 steps above street level; spanning Dearborn with such a structure would leave a vehicle passageway, close off Daley Plaza visually, and create sunning and lounging space much like the popular First National Bank plaza.
The question arises–it arose in me anyway–whether a public space fully a block and a half in area would not be too big. The grandeur of civic plazas is only haphazardly related to their size. Measured from curb to curb Daley Plaza is a biggish space, roughly 335 by 175 feet; the open space of the Roman Forum, for example, was a trapezoid measuring only 125 by 70 feet. The Acropolis measures about 600 by 300 feet; the Piazza San Marco in Venice measures 574 by 260 feet.
If we add Block 37 to the Daley Plaza we get a space that stretches nearly two and a half blocks from the County Building on Clark to Field’s on State. Even so, Burnham would have found it less than grand. His proposed civic center plaza would have been four blocks wide on its shortest side with its long axis (centered on Congress) stretching more than six. Perhaps a third of this vast acreage would have been plaza space; the drawings of it in the published Chicago Plan make it look like the airports that would be built a generation later. Burnham’s plaza would have been akin in scale to Red Square or Tiananmen Square. It would have made a dandy parade ground for massed units of Streets & San trucks, meter maids, and jolly coppers on parade–the kind of civic space that critic Peter Blake once wrote would be perfect for spontaneous rallies in the manner of the Nuremberg spectaculars.
Instead of the usual bronze mannequins, Daley Plaza has one of Cor-ten steel. Chicago’s Picasso sculpture marked its 25th anniversary last year. Critic Paul Gapp among others praised the marriage between the building and its sculptural companion, adding that the Picasso is “almost as beloved a symbol of the city as the old Water Tower.”
Public statuary has always served as props in the stage set of the civic plazas. Such art was supposed to be expressive of the character or exploits of the city. Typical is the obelisk that was brought back to the ceremonial entryway to Rome known as the Piazza del Popolo by Augustus from Heliopolis to commemorate the conquest of that city. (Heliopolis, by the way, is the Greek name for the city of Baalbek, which stood north of Syria in the 13th century BC and was devoted to the worship of Baal, the sun god. Apparently their obelisks were much prized.)
Daley Plaza would have been a fit venue for Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Arch, which instead was turned into a garden ornament for the Art Institute on Columbus Drive, or for Oldenburg’s “bat column.” It would have been an even better venue for a statue of the dead Daley. Such a monument would have been irresistible to vandals and thus the cause of an invigorating running argument about the merits of his rule.
When they concocted their dream piazza for Block 37, architects Exley, Hansen, and Kavanagh hoped to excavate the realm of the subway, the canal, the original swamp, and the rubble from the great fire. Their proposed superstructure would display the more interesting artifacts from the excavation, augmented by light and animated images via what Exley describes as “some kind of information signboard festooned with supergraphics.” The whole thing would “reflect . . . engineering, invention, survival, a determination to succeed and produce the best–all of which cause one to think, where else but in Chicago?”
The great cities have plazas adorned with monuments the citizens built for themselves, works that memorialize their achievements in their own symbolic terms. In this sense the Picasso is the perfect symbol of Chicago. The Picasso is meant to impress everybody but Chicagoans, revealing nothing about Chicago’s history or character apart from the pathetic wish of local elites to be taken seriously by cities they know are bigger or better. Kimbal Goluska, a partner in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, recalled in a recent letter to the Tribune his view that the Picasso sculpture “symbolizes for the rest of the world that dare-to-be-great spirit” of Chicago, and its construction thus “secured Chicago’s rightful place in the international arena of bold conceptual art.”
The real significance of the Picasso is found not in the work itself but in the respect the city shows for it. As M.W. Newman asked in Chicago in 1987, “What other city would flank Picasso with wastebaskets . . . ?”
Where else but in Chicago indeed.
Of course the term civic encompasses more than the institutions of formal government. Webb notes that by the mid-19th century, the rich–whose houses lined the original residential squares–had moved out of the cities, the militia–which used plazas as parade grounds and mustering points–had moved indoors to armories, and merchants set up permanent shops instead of street stalls. The result was that plazas became empty of purpose as well as people. Where climate and local culture make it congenial, they survive as recreational spaces for al fresco dining and conversation, strolling, and the like. But Chicago has never had a boulevard culture, and the versions of it that exist are found in the hotel districts or neighborhoods, not the business center.
The plaza still has a role to play as a venue for political protest. Webb says about Siena that in a city torn by neighborhood and political rivalries, the piazza became common ground, a source of pride, a symbol of unity, and a social safety valve.
The first time Washington-era planning commissioner Elizabeth Hollander saw Daley Plaza was when she got pushed around by cops along with fellow war protesters in the 60s; as a result she admitted to the Friends of Downtown, “I’ve never perceived it as an especially friendly place.” In his show Banjo Dancing, Stephen Wade recalls Chicago in those days as a place where “demonstrations began with music at the old band shell and ended with Mace at Daley Plaza.”
These days we have less need of safety valves than did the hot-blooded Sienans. Daley Plaza is regularly the site of political demonstrations, but of a polite kind; witness the Clinton rally in October. The provision of officially sanctioned space for protest is one index of how protest has become harmless to civil authority, in Chicago as elsewhere. Political protest not only takes place in the same space as accordion band concerts and clog dancing contests, it also appeals to the same promiscuous appetite for entertainment.
Architectural historian Trevor Boddy has noted how marches, demonstrations, and pickets have gradually been shifted from the streets and squares of North American cities to “the windswept emptiness of City Hall Mall or Federal Building Plaza.” The political marginality, he adds, is reinforced “by a physical displacement into so unimportant, uninhabited, and unloved civic location.”
The homeless who populate Daley Plaza are protesters too in their way, their message being their presence. In the summer of 1990, Ben Nicholson, studio professor of architecture at IIT, published ten “poises,” or polemical proposals for reworking space within the city of Chicago. He chose ten points that collectively would “poke at its underbelly.”
One of the points of reworked space is at the extreme northwest corner of Daley Plaza. There the lid of the ramp to the police basement garage creates what Nicholson called a “granite plinth to nothingness.” “Because it rests on such a vital public square,” Nicholson reasoned, “it has a certain potential for a display of the artifacts–the portable home of the urban gypsy, who makes his home in the city even though he has no house. By putting the portable home of the hobo on display in spots normally reserved for eminent politicians or provocative sculptures, the deserved dignity of the urban gypsy might be brought to the public’s attention.”
Potsdamer Platz stands at the heart of Berlin, near the Brandenburg Gate. It is at once a traffic intersection, night spot, and open space that before the war was known as the Times Square of Europe. Bombed during the war and divided by the wall after it, the land today is dirt, Berlin’s Block 37. It is used as a site for flea markets, picnics, cycling, bungee jumping. The land has been sold by the new German government to big-time developers for redevelopment, the plans for which reportedly have Berliners arguing with the passion that Chicagoans devote to the rebuilding of the Bears.
The nature of the public square, wrote Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man, is to intermix persons and diverse activities. Diverse activities certainly intermix on Daley Plaza, thanks to the indefatigable Department of Cultural Affairs. I treasure a schedule for May 1989 as wonderfully, weirdly typical. The noontime lineups included the Chicago Bar Association Chamber Orchestra’s “Law Day” concert, a “musical variety performance by children with disabilities,” pop songs from the 1950s, celebrations of Haitian Flag Day, Polish Constitution Day, and Romanian Independence Day (done in folk costume), country music, military-band music, Greek dancers from the Presidential Palace in Athens, assorted youth symphonies, a coloratura soprano doing operatic selections and Broadway show tunes, and the CTA Employee Appreciation Day concert.
But programmed activities are to civic life what dating services are to romance: proof that the real thing is dead. They used to have bullfights in Siena’s piazza, not to mention the occasional armed uprising, both of which they managed without an Office of Special Events. Chicago’s downtown spaces fulfill more circumscribed goals; each is content to be, as Cityfront Center president Charles Gardner described Ogden Plaza, a “wonderful place for people to lunch or relax.”
Medieval and Renaissance squares in contrast functioned as urban “free zones,” places where all the activities of the city intersected, places described by Richard Sennett as “designed with a lingering, congregating crowd in mind.” A lingering, congregating crowd constitutes a market in any age. The Roman Forum was the site of shops as well as basilicas, government halls, and debate platforms. While the Greek gods congregated on the Acropolis, Athenians congregated in the agora, which at various times included concert halls and temples as well as stoas, the long arcaded buildings that housed market stalls.
However physically faithful they are to these ancient models, few of the modern-day promenades, pocket parks, plazas, and shopping arcades prescribed under incentive zoning schemes since the 1960s became social space in quite the same way. (The closest you can get to experiencing the Piazza San Marco in Chicago is to stand beside the replica of one of its famous bronze horses that adorns the plaza at One Financial Place.) On a visit to Naples some years ago, recalls Jack Hartray, street vendors explained that they were selling out of carts on the street because of damage wreaked by the recent earthquake. On previous visits the same people had been selling out of the same carts; they’d told him then that they had to sell in the streets because of the damage from the war. In fact, he says, street vending survives because there is a demand for it, because “Neapolitans like going into the street to buy things.”
Chicagoans for a time did flock to open-air markets and other such manifestations of European public life, but that was in the 19th and early 20th centuries when newly arrived Chicagoans were still more European than American. “Open-air markets, the delight of Americans abroad, flourished in our own cities,” wrote David Lowe in Lost Chicago. Maxwell Street is the best remembered of these, but the liveliest may have been the South Water Street market (razed in the 20s to build Wacker Drive), which Lowe likened to Paris’ Les Halles. Outside of the ethnic enclave, however, public space is still reckoned a cost rather than a benefit.
Here’s Michael Webb again, waxing euphoric: “What [American cities] lack are civic spaces that are useful and beautiful, that have a place for office workers and the homeless, concerts and contemplation, children’s games and lovers’ trysts. The need is for spaces that are woven into the urban fabric, that are safe to linger in, but that have a feeling of spontaneity, not watchful supervision. And these public spaces should express the shared spirit of the city, and the artistic spirit of today–as Siena’s Campo and the Agora of Athens did for the eras in which they were built. . . .”
Yes, the spirit of the city thing. Webb’s vision is enticing, and it has been seducing members of this country’s corporate and professional elites for more than a century. U.S. architects and city planners still trek as Burnham did to such shrines as the Piazza del Campo in Siena. There they admire the cafes, the parades, the strollers, the market, and feast days the way Englishmen once admired our flush toilets and central heating. As a result, our big-city zoning laws (until very recently) prescribed plazas, do-gooders endorse them, developers donate them.
But these are seldom fully public spaces. As Webb noted in a recent article, the presence of non-tenants in quasi-public corporate plazas is often tolerated but hardly encouraged. A downtown park usually has two radically disparate constituencies who make radically different demands on the space. The daytime users are office workers, shoppers, and tourists; the nighttime users are the Loop regulars, for whom such spaces function as neighborhood parks.
Which is why parks increasingly are opposed by residents and property owners as potential nuisances. (South Loop neighborhood activists resisted construction of a park north of the Harold Washington Library on those grounds, complaining that public spaces in Chicago tend not to be well maintained.) The helpless and hapless tend to accumulate in public spaces, where no one cares enough to throw them out. Their presence is seldom clearly illegal, but they are the cause of increasing distress to shoppers, tourists, and office workers.
The classic case is Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, which was essentially taken over by drug dealers during even daylight hours in spite of its conspicuous location in front of the New York Public Library. Its parkness contributed to its decline, to the extent that landscape plants obscured the interior of the park from the scrutiny of passersby, including police. Fixing it required a multimillion-dollar overhaul (paid for mainly from private funds).
The popularity of private spaces such as malls is generally attributed to management rather than design. “Management solutions need to be socially responsible,” insists Adelmann. In Oregon, the Association for Portland Progress hires homeless for simple cleaning jobs then trains them to move up to jobs as janitors and garage managers; Grand Central Partnership, the management association in midtown Manhattan, runs a center for job training that has found permanent housing for more than 200 homeless and jobs for 100.
This is hardly a new preoccupation in Chicago or elsewhere. It was significant that Burnham chose as the model for Chicago’s civic center the Acropolis, wherein the gods sojourned, and not the agora, where the people mingled. He found Bernini’s piazza outside Saint Peter’s in Rome (and the later plazas modeled on it) much more to his liking. These spaces were so grandly scaled as to be monuments in their own right. Activities were restricted to passage and transport; the cafes, shops, and street entertainment common to earlier squares were discouraged or banned. Such places physically expressed the social order and harmony so dear to Burnham’s politician and businessman clients.
Many of today’s senior corporate managers, bankers, and big real estate developers seek the same polite pleasures in our own big cities. These are people who cherish the vividness of the big city as amusement and its diversity as business opportunity. There is in short a strong element of tourism in the appeal of a vivid street life to our economic elites. The piazza experience has such appeal to the upscale American that it is being marketed as a product; in New York last autumn, the Italian Trade Commission built what it called “an authentic 30,000-square-foot Italian piazza” in a midtown armory, from which were peddled crafts, jewelry, and clothing, and cappuccino by the quart.
In contrast, our cultural elites–who include most of our planners, architects, and critics–tend to prefer the social intimacy of the older and smaller medieval plazas. Well-traveled and educated if not always affluent, they are sophisticated and tolerant; raised in the perhaps too ordered environments of the suburbs or the polite middle-class home, they appreciate, even crave the disorder of the city. To them a walk down Maxwell Street approximates the experience of the third world in all its exoticism, its variety, and its faint menace.
A few skeptics have replied that the medieval piazza is not an appropriate model for contemporary urban plazas because the values expressed by such public spaces contradict the values and living habits of most Americans. We are a people who, in case you hadn’t noticed, tend to be self-centered, home oriented, and culturally insular. (We are not alone in this; today the traditions of the Japanese public bath are declining as more people there get indoor plumbing.) Our expectations of public spaces are shaped by social pressure toward isolation, separation, and exclusion.
Today’s conventional planning wisdom embraces diversity as a crucial aspect of the design of public spaces. But as Elizabeth Hollander said some years ago in remarks at the Chicago Historical Society, “Most of our people have said, in effect, ‘We don’t want to live with diversity and jumble.’ What we have in the big city today is not community, just two societies living in the same place and feeling extremely uncomfortable.” People from different classes and ethnic backgrounds seldom agree on rules for appropriate behavior in public places; impoverished governments cannot provide the maintenance and security that comfort requires. Instead they resort to the classic American solution and market the hell out of a bad product by programming entertainments that would not be necessary if the space worked in the first place.
In short, it is a mistake to import European urban forms to places outside the social context that makes them work. If Barcelona reportedly has built nearly 100 parks and squares in the last ten years it is because Barcelonans like to sit and talk and read in them. Well into this century, visitors bunked in posh hotels often failed to appreciate the extent to which the Parisian’s appetite for cafes owed to housing so appalling that his place on a chair at a sidewalk cafe probably smelled better and was less drafty than his rooms.
In the U.S., public space is used by most people merely to move from one protected private environment to another. The trend began a century ago in Chicago, when the great department stores in effect moved the street indoors where the experience of shopping could be purged of its noise and danger and stink (and, more recently, weather). Mall designers in turn imitated those broad promenades of stores within a store. Americans are more at home in the enclosed shopping mall, a form of plaza that owes less to the democratic town square than to the amusement park.
Downtown Chicago today is rich in places where people can enjoy the attractions of the square without its annoyances, that are diverse in function, clientele, and architectural spectacle. Water Tower Place is one; another is the State of Illinois Center. Such places are to the late-20th-century U.S. what the boulevard was to the 19th-century Parisian or the residential square was to the 18th-century Londoner. Each is the space that embodies the culture’s expectations of civic life and thus comes closer than the traditional plaza to Mayer and Wade’s new context for human contacts.
It’s always hard to decide what to leave in and what to take out of an article like this. We journalists exist to answer our readers’ questions about the world, but often the most interesting questions are those that have no answers, at least not yet.
For instance: It has been noted that the planners, architects, and social scientists who comprise the street-life school of urban design–the “Everybody into the plaza!” people –either relied on studies of city life in the 1920s and ’30s, when U.S. cities were predominantly Italian, Polish, or Jewish, or are themselves descended from one of these groups. William H. Whyte, the guru of the street-life school, came upon many of his insights into the public use of space by watching people on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue. That street is the center for the fur and jewelry trades still dominated by Sephardic Jews whose tradition of face-to-face meetings is preserved in the practice of schmoozing on the street corner.
Whyte has insisted that schmoozing is universal, a conclusion that suggests he has not spent much time among, say, German Lutherans. Apparently there is no body of empirical evidence about how Chicagoans use public spaces; such studies might answer the fascinating question whether and how the social life of Loop sidewalks today differs from that of New York because Chicago is predominantly Eastern European and Irish and the other is Italian and Jewish.
Plazas are anomalous architectural constructions in that the more they have in them the smaller they seem. Daley Plaza often looks and feels empty even though there may be dozens of people moving through it. Yet in 1985 it felt quite cozy when the city crowded into it to celebrate the Bears’ Superbowl win. It was significant that when the city celebrated the Bulls’ NBA titles the event was held not at its titular town square but in Grant Park, a venue inappropriate in every way except acreage. Shape probably means more to a successful plaza than size. The sense of openness of the great urban spaces derives from the closeness of the city crowding around them. The Piazza San Marco in Venice again is a model: it has arcaded galleries on three sides and the Grand Canal on the fourth. The traditional piazzas stand out much more distinctly from the twisting narrow streets of the adjacent city. Stumbling upon Daley Plaza today, especially now that its east wall has vanished, one feels no such surprise, no dramatic reorientation as one would feel in these other places.
Just as important, such plazas have unmistakable boundaries. Daley Plaza is bounded by streets on three sides that limit use but do not limit sight. The effective visual space includes the streets and sidewalks that border it on the east, west, and south. The space thus seems larger than it is, as well as less distinct.
It took nearly 20 years for people to realize that what appealed about the plazas of that first generation of glass boxes was that the old city crowded around them. In 1989 the owners of the John Hancock Building proposed to give that landmark a face-lift by building a three-story, $20 million glass atrium at its base, pushing ground-level retailing closer to the sidewalk by covering the 60s-style plaza on which the structure was set.
Architects were aghast at the idea, but lovers of historical ironies were delighted. The Hancock at its opening was the bully boy of North Michigan Avenue. Since then the avenue has been so grossly overbuilt that the Hancock plaza–an extraneous gesture to the gods of open space at the time it was built–was described by one preservationist as a “sigh of relief” on today’s canyonlike thoroughfare.
Streets are almost always overlooked when people tote up public space. A recent survey by the city’s own planners found that only 3.3 percent of the land area within the Loop is devoted to public open space, a figure that obviously did not include streets. The fact is, however, that streets are perhaps the most important kind of public space in our downtowns. Michael Webb, in his book The City Square, writes that the European square evolved as a paved or landscaped adornment to the city, a retreat from busy streets. But in U.S. cities like Chicago, the streets were wider, straighter, cleaner. They function as linear squares, places where people could socialize, shop, and be entertained. People strolled along rather than around urban space in U.S. cities, explained Webb, with the result that the street became the surrogate for the square. Chicago’s great retail streets, first State and now North Michigan, were probably the closest things the city ever had to a European plaza.
Unfortunately, noise and bad air and shadows cast by bigger and bigger buildings make Chicago’s bustling sidewalks undesirable for anything save movement through the city. That these acres of public space have become such uncongenial environments is not due to their configuration or location but to the failure to regulate what goes on beside them, especially noise and the exhaust from internal combustion (especially diesel) engines. Unlike most of the great European spaces, our plazas are abutted by streets. Chicago architect P.K. Vanderbeke, writing in Inland Architect, found Ogden Plaza has “all the necessary elements for a vibrant social space” except people. They are put off at the prospect of dining “in full view and earshot of six lanes of traffic and a row of idling cabs” on Columbus Drive.
Perhaps what Chicago needs is not another grandly scaled space in which people can escape the streets but fewer reasons to want to.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.